This match was judged by Sal Robinson, a graduate student in library science and co-founder of the Bridge Series.
It seems hardly fair to have to face off against a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, as relative newcomer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does in this round of the WWCOL, with Adichie’s Americanah, her fourth novel, up against Toni Morrison’s Home, her second most recent novel of a long and glorious career. But the world isn’t fair, and even Nobel Prize winners get old and tired, and Americanah is a better novel than Home. Americanah bristles confidently all over with commentary on race relations, on America, on Nigeria, on sex and writing and immigration, whereas Home feels like Morrison picked up the ball and ran down the field with it and threw it in the goal, yelling “You know I can fucking do this, why do I have to do this again?” That isn’t—in case you weren’t aware of this, fellow Americans—the way you play soccer, though.
Both books are about journeys away from and then back towards home, or someplace that once was home. Home is the story of Frank Money, a Korean War vet who has returned to the US and is drifting around the West until he gets a telegram about his sister Cee that reads merely “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.” After a failed teenage marriage, Cee, it turns out, has gone to work for a doctor in the suburbs of Atlanta. It’s never quite clear what the doctor does, though part of it involves abortions, but he’s got a creepy library full of books on eugenics and he’s been experimenting on Cee. Frank has to swoop in and carry Cee off to their hometown of Lotus, Georgia, which he hated and got out of as fast as he could; it’s place where—as Morrison nails it—there’s “nothing to do but mindless work in fields you didn’t own, couldn’t own, and wouldn’t own if you had any other choice.” Frank, meanwhile, is carrying his own burdens, of returning to a still-segregated country after serving in an integrated army, the guilt and pain of seeing his two best friends die in the war, creeping alcoholism, and crucially, the recurring memory of an American soldier shooting a Korean child. Underlying this all, and kicking off the book, is a scene that Frank and Cee witnessed when they were children: a group of white men burying the body of a black man in a remote field, a body not quite dead, one of its feet still jerking. Frank eventually finds out the truth behind this scene, a truth which is about five times more horrifying than you might have even anticipated.
In other words, at every turn, this book is full of Heavy Material. A longer book might have been able to carry it. But this one doesn’t even crack 150 pages, and suffers from a sense of cutting corners, which is sometimes reflected in flat, explanatory prose, like “Lily displaced his disorder, his rage and his shame. The displacements had convinced him the emotional wreckage no longer existed.” I also felt at times that I was being led on a tour of indignities, each stop on Frank’s trip an opportunity to show how shittily African-Americans have been treated on an institutional and individual basis. And when Frank and Cee make it back to Lotus, it somewhat mysteriously transforms from the ass-end of nowhere into a paradise (there might be a Land of the Lotus-Eaters reference buried in the town’s name) of tough, nurturing women and sweet bay trees with metaphorically heavy, blasted-but-not-broken limbs. Morrison adds nuance to all these U-turns and comparisons but the book still feels rushed, more a collection of portraits and vignettes than a novel taking the time it needs to support its plot properly.
Americanah, on other hand, weighs in at a generous 588 pages, and it feels like Adichie could have gone on for much longer. Like Home, it also has two protagonists, a woman and a man: in this case, Ifemulu and her first love Odinze, who live out two different stories of immigration and return, with Lagos as their center. Ifemulu comes to the United States to go to college in the early 2000s and stays for thirteen years, eventually achieving success and making her living by writing a blog about race titled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Odinze, on the other hand, who has always idolized the United States, sees his dream quashed by strict post-9/11 immigration policies and eventually ends up in the United Kingdom, from which he is finally, humiliatingly, deported, after his visa expires. Both Ifemulu and Odinze are surprised and overwhelmed by the challenges of immigration, and Adichie’s depiction of their parallel experiences makes it painfully clear how lonely and difficult it is to be an immigrant. And how strange too, if you’re a well-educated middle-class kid as Ifemulu and Odinze are, to find yourself using a false name so that you can work, setting up a false marriage to stay in the country, slipping over into a vaguely criminal life.
And then, of course, there’s race, specifically the experience of being black in America, the book’s and Ifemulu’s great subject. Adichie has a lot to say about it, and she is particularly scathing on the embarrassing ineptitude of liberal white Americans in their attempts to “relate” to black people. In the sections of the book that describe Ifemulu’s life in America, where race and its complications are often the focus, Adichie’s talent lies more in making observations than creating fully believable characters wrestling with the issues. The people with whom Ifemulu interacts in the States—her bosses, her boyfriends, her friends—seem broadly drawn to demonstrate various facets of the dysfunctional American relationship to race: the cloyingly empathetic white boss, who calls all black women “beautiful”; the blond and blue-eyed boyfriend, who, immediately after Ifemulu tells him that she has cheated on him, asks whether the guy was white. In fact, in a lot of ways, the novel feels like Ifemulu’s blog, which Adichie includes excerpts from here and there. And yet, as cartoonish as Adichie’s Americans might seem, the way that people, especially white Americans, talk about and behave in relation to race in the real world is actually outlandish, disproportionate, and awkward. The line between satire and realism runs thin in this novel.
I think, though, what finally swung me around to the book is that there’s no situation to which Adichie doesn’t seem prepared to bring her tremendous narrative gifts. For instance, Americanah is also the story of Ifemulu and Odinze’s sweet and powerful adolescent love, which is tested by their different journeys—and I’m not going to baby you on this, they get back together in the end—but just before they’re reunited, when Adichie has ratcheted up the emotional suspense to its highest hanky-grabbing peak and you don’t know if it’s all going to work out or not—she suddenly switches away and writes a long party scene where a group of Nigerian businessman (Odinze, after his return home, has gone into real estate and gotten rich) talk over the dirty secrets of the Nigerian economy. Each character, most of them new to the book, is adeptly, perfectly sketched in description and dialogue, and one of them actually says “The problem is not that public officials steal, the problem is that they steal too much.” I wanted a whole new book to grow out of that scene alone.
And if Adichie’s energy and intelligence aren’t enough for you, the Nigerian women’s soccer team has a player named Perpetua Nkwocha (according to Deadspin, she’s “considered the best African player to ever live”), so they get literature points for having a player with the same name as a font. Plus, the team’s nickname is the “Super Falcons.” Not just the Falcons, but the Super Falcons! That really can’t be improved upon. Nigeria for the win!
Next up, Nigeria’s Americanah will face off against Australia’s Burial Rites on Thursday, June 25th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Mythili Rao, and features South Korea’s Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah up against Spain’s The Happy City by Elvira Navarro.
This is a special piece by Sal Robinson, freelance editor and co-founder of The Bridge, the first independent reading and discussion series in New York City devoted to literary translation. She has worked for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Phaidon, and Words Without Borders.
Among the small number of translated books published in the US each year, there is an even smaller subset: the number of those books that are nonfiction. This is a strange asymmetry, though it’s one of many in the area of translated books, an area subject to almost-tectonic market pressures that produce jagged imbalances, even if predictable ones—for instance, writers from Europe are generally better represented than writers from the rest of the world and male writers are generally better represented than female writers. But I’d venture to say that the percentages for both of the above are better than the percentage breakdown for fiction vs. nonfiction. It’s hard to know for sure because the invaluable translation database compiled by Three Percent—the sole record of how many and which translated books are published in the United States each year—only counts fiction and poetry.
It’s not an empty field: university presses bring out works by prominent international figures, like Umberto Eco, Liu Xiaobo, Pascal Bruckner, and Adam Michnik. Small presses will publish a respected author or an individual title: Open Letter Books publishes Dubravka Ugresic’s essays; two writers in the distinguished tradition of Polish reportage initiated by Ryszard Kapuściński, Wojciech Jagielski and Wojciech Tochman, have had books published in the United States, by Seven Stories Press and Atlas & Co., respectively. Larger houses make the occasional foray: Geert Mak’s monumental In Europe: Travels in the Twentieth Century was published by Pantheon several years ago. A memoir of growing up in Siberia’s criminal gangs, Siberian Education, by Nikolai Lilin, is currently out from Norton. However, relatively little attention is paid to these books: Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (FSG, 2007) is the last translated nonfiction title that I can remember being widely reviewed.
If the percentage of trade nonfiction to fiction published in other countries is similar to U.S percentages, where the split is roughly 75/25 (based on Bowker’s 2002-2009 statistics, and excluding cookbooks, computing books, and other categories of how-to books), then we are missing out on memoirs, essays, reportage, histories, biographies, science and policy books in vast numbers. I think there are both honorable and dishonorable reasons as to why this is so. But I do find it disturbing that American publishers and readers seem to favor fiction as the way to see the rest of the world. Instead of thrashing through the reasons behind this phenomenon, I’d prefer to list a few examples of what exactly we’re missing, in the hope that that’s a more effective shock to the system. Here are some titles and authors that warrant greater attention, topped off with some pointed questions and comments:
1. Andrés Felipe Solano, Seis meses con el salario mínimo (Six Months on the Minimum Wage). In 2007, Solano spent six months living in Medellín, Colombia, and working in a clothing factory. An excerpt from his account of that time appeared on the website Words Without Borders in January 2011, and it was exceptional. It conveyed the life of the factory—the work, monotonous or back-breaking or both; what the other employees are like, where they come from, how they make their jobs bearable; how management is alternately bullying and clumsily apologetic when the paychecks are days late—and it was also honest about the experience of this kind of experiment, where the participant knows that they are able to leave, and will leave, someday soon, while their fellow workers will stay: Solano crosses off the days of his stint on a pocket calendar and describes staring at it “like a soldier gazing at a photo of his fiancée beneath the roar of enemy planes.” He is observant and sympathetic, but not melodramatic. By the end of the WWB excerpt, you have a very clear sense of how difficult that life is and why it’s so difficult, because it’s physically demanding, boring, and humiliating. And yet money must be made somehow. “One afternoon,” Solano writes, “I counted 1,253 items of clothing; I wrote the number down on a piece of paper so I will never forget what a person will do for money.” (translations from Spanish by Samantha Schnee) The only alternative profession in Medellín is crime, which rewards and kills its employees with great dispatch.
An essay by Solano about traveling across the United States by Greyhound bus was published in the New York Times in June. And an excerpt from his novel The Cuervo Brothers was picked for Granta_’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue last spring. This recognition means that it’s likely that _The Cuervo Brothers or a future novel by Solano will find a U.S. publisher, but the fate of Seis meses con el salario mínimo is far more uncertain. And yet, it’s an excellent, skillful piece of writing and the subject is very much of interest to American readers, probably increasingly so since the recession. My pointed question here is: if there’s an audience for a book like William Vollmann’s Imperial or Poor People, why isn’t there one for Solano’s book? Why do we seem to depend on American authors to tell us about the rest of the world when its own inhabitants are also writing about it?
2. Arnon Grunberg. The Dutch writer Grunberg is primarily known as a novelist (Blue Mondays, Silent Extras, Phantom Pain, The Jewish Messiah), but over the years, he has pursued a parallel track in literary journalism. Usually published by NRC Handelsblad or other Dutch periodicals, Grunberg’s articles are about the many and varied situations in which he has immersed himself: he has been a chambermaid in a Bavarian hotel and a masseur in Romania, he has moved in with middle-class families in the Netherlands, he has gone to Montenegro to import miracle face cream produced in a nunnery, he has visited the Ukraine to find a bride, traveled to Mennonite communities in Paraguay and goldmines in Ghana. He has also traveled to and written about the prison camps at Guantánamo Bay and the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s impossible not to admire Grunberg’s willingness to experiment with his life and his desire to understand other people’s lives. I also like his confidence in the range of experiences he has chosen to pursue―no divide between “worthy” or “serious” undertakings, such reporting from Guantánamo, and larks like the Montenegrin miracle cream scheme. Grunberg treats both types of experiences seriously and comically at once; he sees how the two are wound around each other. For instance, on his first day in Guantánamo he observes that all questions are grouped by his army escort as either good or not-so-good: “Anyone who asks a good question is told: good question. Anyone who asks a not-so-good question is told nothing.” In Iraq, he accompanies American soldiers trying to “win hearts and minds” to the village of Ali Hamed:
First we pass out toys and chocolate to the children. The concept of toys is subject to broader interpretation here; from the box, the soldiers also produce paper-hole punches.
Once all the toys have been passed out, Lt. Kaness asks the sheik what his village needs. ‘Would you like us to pave the road, for a kilometer or so?’ the lieutenant suggests.
The sheik nods.
“Which side of the road, right or left?”
The sheik thinks about it for a moment. “The right side.”
(translation from Dutch by Sam Garrett)
Some of Grunberg’s pieces have appeared in English— Salon has published articles on Iraq and Israel— but this represents only a small proportion of his work. And in fact, his nonfiction has been collected and published in the Netherlands in 2009 as Kamermeisjes & Soldaten (Chambermaids & Soldiers). In other words, to speak very practically, much of the difficult work has been done, the book already exists. In Grunberg’s case, even the other familiar barriers for literature-in-translation have been surmounted: he has worked regularly with the translator Sam Garrett, obviating the difficulties in finding a translator and, particularly, the right translator for a specific book; the Dutch government provides generous subsidies for the translation and promotion of Dutch literature; and on top of all that, Grunberg lives in New York and speaks perfect English. And still no U.S. publisher has taken a chance on Kamermeisjes & Soldaten, though Grunberg’s fiction has been published by Other Press, Penguin, and FSG. To me, this situation is the most conclusive evidence yet that superb international nonfiction is being almost actively ignored.
3. Peter Fröberg Idling, Pol Pot’s Leende (Pol Pot’s Smile). Also excerpted on Words Without Borders, in 2009, Idling’s book, originally published in Sweden in 2006, is about a fact-finding trip made by a group of Swedish observers to Cambodia in 1978. The observers reported nothing amiss at a time when 1,330,000 Cambodians had already been killed— purged, starved, died in the course of slave labor— and thousands more were dying daily. The Swedish delegation was sympathetic to what it thought was what happening in Cambodia: the liberation of the country from an U.S.-backed regime and the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea, a nation run by and for the Cambodian people. Idling, a journalist who has worked as a legal adviser to an aid organization in Cambodia, tries to understand this silence, this failure: did the Swedes choose not to report the less encouraging aspects of their trip, wanting not to weaken a cause they believed in, or did they actually not see signs of what was going on? Was the suffering and mass murder concealed from the foreigners or was it somehow not visible? How could mass murder be invisible in a country approximately the size of Oklahoma?
Idling interweaves the story of his research in Cambodia and in Sweden, where he tracks down and talks to the observers, with the story of Pol Pot’s rise to power. He chooses telling and unusual details from Pol Pot’s youth, focusing in one section on a memorable goal Pol Pot made in a soccer match in high school. Among his teammates that day were friends who later led the country with Pol Pot, friends who later still he would order to be executed. Idling also examines two artifacts the delegation produced, a book called Kampuchea Between the Wars and a documentary film made by one of the party, Jan Myrdal, a writer and public figure, prominent in Sweden since the 1950s, thinking that where human observers were fallible, surely photography and film might reveal something of the truth, “a glint in someone’s eye, when they think the camera is pointing in another direction.” But there’s nothing. Idling’s faith in his own knowledge is shaken:
During the years I have lived in Cambodia I have listened to countless witnesses of the terrible privations of Democratic Kampuchea. And despite these witnesses, despite everything I have been told, I find myself thinking that perhaps it wasn’t quite so bad after all.
That perhaps there has been some kind of misunderstanding.
(translation from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella)
Pol Pot’s Leende has been shortlisted for the inaugural Ryszard Kapuściński Award and sold to publishers throughout Europe. And like Seis meses con el salario mínimo, its subject― how we in the West understand and misunderstand political developments in the rest of the world― has only become more relevant since the book was first released, with the coming of the Arab Spring. There’s every reason to bring this book out in the U.S.― relevance, literary quality, original subject matter― and it just hasn’t happened.
The examples above are all literary reportage and reflect my personal interests, but nonfiction of other genres is equally under-represented in the English-language market. From experience, I know how challenging it can be to publish literature-in-translation in the U.S. And fiction may often “travel better” than nonfiction: a memoir by an Italian politician or a book of humorous essays by a Turkish author won’t have the appeal that a new Italian or Turkish novel might, and legitimately so. Readers and reviewers of translated nonfiction may feel less sure about how to evaluate it, or what traditions it comes out of. But this doesn’t mean good work shouldn’t be translated and published more consistently in the first place. Good books are often hard to find, publish, and market (not to mention to write). It takes focus, some daring, and confidence. I’m not fond of the scolding tone often taken towards American publishers and readers for their literary isolation: some of the time I just don’t think it’s accurate and it makes the publishing and reading of translated books into a moral, castor-oil sort of activity that doesn’t do well by either the books or the readers. But I want to read Solano’s, Grunberg’s, and Idling’s nonfiction, the books entire, I wish they were available, and I hope, after this article, I’m not the only one.
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